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Archive for : Staff

Creative Approaches to the Sabbatical Year: Debt Relief, Gleaning, Sustainability

The following reflection was written by Lily Brent, Executive Director of Repair the World Atlanta.

In the second month of 5782 (Cheshvan), I’m still thinking about the shmita, or sabbatical year.  The Repair team, and our Atlanta Jewish community, are finding creative ways to interpret this ancient practice for our modern lives.

Deuteronomy 15:1-2 states, “Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts… everyone who owns a debt, who has one in their hand, shall not press it against their neighbor nor their brother, for God has called for Shmita.” On September 29, Rabbi Samuel Kaye hosted us in the sukkah and taught us about The Temple’s transformative approach to living the spirit of shmita.

“For hundreds of thousands of people living in Atlanta, recovering from illness is not only a physical and spiritual burden – but an extreme financial one as well. Medical procedures cost unfathomable amounts of money for services, and insurance companies denying coverage seemingly at a whim, all while we are at our most vulnerable. Everyone has loved someone who has fallen ill, and most know the dread and shock of opening a medical bill to find out that they owe far more money than they expected; or could ever afford…As a Jewish community, The Temple is taking it upon ourselves to live by the ancient words of our sacred Torah and do our part to alleviate that suffering. We can do this because for everyone $1 we set aside for debt relief, RIP Medical Debt can forgive approximately $100 dollars.”

Atlanta Repair partnered with The Temple and generous donors–small and large–in our community to raise $70,000, which will relieve $7 million in medical debt. Atlantans who earn less than 2 times the federal poverty level, whose debts are 5 percent or more of their annual income, or whose medical debts are greater than their assets will soon be notified that their slate has been wiped clean. I am truly humbled to have been a part of The Temple’s inspired effort where Jewish practice is tangibly changing lives for the better.

Many of us are more familiar with Shmita’s agricultural aspect. Exodus 23:10 reads, “Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it.” This will be Repair’s third year with a fellow supporting our partner Concrete Jungle. As you will see in the spotlight below, Concrete Jungle practices foraging and gleaning year round–“transforming overlooked and underutilized fruit trees and land into a healthy food source for communities in need.”

Finally, in honor of Shmita, I am deeming 5782 Atlanta Repair’s year of organizational sustainability. We have created, invented and expanded rapidly over the last three years–bringing Repair’s Fellowship and Service Corps to Atlanta. This year, I am setting the intention to sink our roots deeper, to cultivate and broaden our base of support, to deepen our learning and reflection, to get even better at what we do best, so that we can grow sustainably far into the future.

 

Our Fellows’ Insight on their Service Partners
Emma:
The people at both Rebecca’s Tent and Historic Westside Gardens have been my favorite part of my experience thus far. Their commitment, drive, and genuine passion for their missions is admirable and they inspire me to root down in my community. They’re also so much fun to be around and make coming to work such a pleasure.

Palmer: The first thing you notice working with both Concrete Jungle and Mind Bubble is the sheer level of care and compassion they bring to the table. They both work in vastly different spaces (food justice and education, respectively) but both are prioritizing the communities they work with above all else. It’s been an amazing start to the fellowship because of them.

Clara Sophia: I am so struck by the joy that the team at PAWkids brings to the work each day. The work can be really heavy, but Miss Latonya and her team choose to meet each person and day with a positive attitude. Even more than attitude, they have the courage to envision a different world. It is so wonderful to be back working alongside the PAWkids team.

Rest to Continue the Journey

The following reflection was written by Lily Brent, Executive Director of Repair the World Atlanta.

This Rosh Hashanah, I felt more ready than ever to turn over a new leaf, and yet a little bit stuck. After the “Summer of Freedom” turned into a “Summer of Disappointment,” I found myself asking whether this year would really be different in all the ways I had hoped. I’ve written often about not losing heart in the face of incremental progress and the many small, relentless, unglamourous acts it takes to make lasting change. In the era of COVID, all of that holds true, and the burden is greater, our steps heavier. COVID has turned out to be a marathon, not a sprint.

We are entering the shmita year–a “year of release.” (Our “In the News” column below explains shmita in greater detail and offers opportunities to participate). Gayanne Guerin of Congregation Bet Haverim shared a music video about shmita made by
Cantor Jessi Roemer. I found it so powerful just to watch other humans breathe. Just as there is deep value in the Jewish ritual of Shabbat, there is so much wisdom in practicing shmita as well. In order to continue our work, we have to rest. For some of us, rest is an act of revolution, something that has been systematically denied by slavery and systemic racism. Our many frontline workers have been keeping an impossible pace and somehow have to find the strength to continue.

What will you release this year? How will you rest? And how will you create the capacity for others to rest? In the spirit of shmita, how can our community together enact a rhythm so that all are cared for, no one feels scarcity, and yet rest is possible?

I’m reminded of our 2020-21 fellow Claire Ruben who reflected, “My service partner, Rebecca’s Tent, is run by a single full-time employee. I run the shelter’s career empowerment program, manage volunteers, coordinate donations, and perform outreach. Beyond direct service, I believe Repair’s greatest impact is how we help experienced community members operate at their fullest potential.”

In 2020-21, Repair the World Atlanta engaged 1,600+ participants in over 5000 acts of service and learning, contributing nearly 10,000 hours of service to our nonprofit partners. We supported Concrete Jungle’s launch of an emergency COVID-19 grocery delivery program. In connection with partners such as Congregation Bet Haverim and Jewish Career & Family Services, the program grew to provide crucial food assistance to 400+ families and 800+ individuals per week for the first 18 months of the pandemic. Last year, we launched a Service Corps program and engaged 36 corps members to serve with 15 organizations.

We pushed ourselves further than we ever thought possible. By volunteering and mobilizing others to volunteer, we also created space for others to rest. In 5782, I’m grateful to be in community with all of you. If you have the capacity, join us to support our community’s resilience. And when you need to, please rest.

Sabbatical Year: How rest and reflection can volunteer new insights on service

By Rabbi Jessy Dressin, Senior Director of Jewish Education
and Wendy Rhein, Senior Director of Philanthropy

Youth Spirit Art Works Volunteer Work Day

It’s spring 2021, and Jaqob Harris (xe/xem/xyr)* has just arrived at 1Hood Media, a Pittsburgh nonprofit, inspired to help meet a pressing need in xyr community. Jaqob is there to assist with election education, but in the process xe gets to know folks in xyr extended community and listens to stories about the experiences of xyr neighbors. Reflecting later, Jaqob speaks of much more than the work xe performed:

“The most significant change for me has to be how much I learned about myself, and how others view the issues we face,” said Jaqob, a member of Repair the World’s Service Corps spring 2021 cohort. “I had the opportunity to think about and look into how we experience modern racism, oppression, discrimination, etc., and how it’s perpetrated throughout national and local systems — as opposed to just being told that it exists.”

As Jaqob learned, sometimes unexpected insights volunteer themselves to us when we serve. This Rosh Hashanah, we welcome a shmita year, or Sabbatical year — a year that invites us to approach things from a different perspective, one that tells us to be open to the unexpected. 

The Torah, Judaism’s foundational text, instructs that every seventh day of the week should be a day of rejuvenating rest. In a concentric circle of time, the Torah further instructs that every seventh year should be a year of reset, recalibration, and release. In Exodus 23:10-11, it is written: “six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield and the seventh you shall let it rest and lay fallow.” This shmita year has simple but profound instructions: let the land lie fallow, release people from their acquired debts, and see what emerges when we take time to learn new things. In Deuteronomy, the Torah further teaches that abundance follows this release. 

At first glance, it seems a shmita year might be a year of refrain, framed by what we do not do. However, the invitation is actually to consider what we can do and can learn when we recalibrate how we approach our actions and commitments. A spiritual reset might make space for more na’aseh v’nishma, the Jewish value of action and learning, which can spur generative growth as we move toward the future.

In its traditional form, a distinct tenet of shmita is leaving fields uncultivated and unplanned so we can notice what might volunteer itself in that time. In an agricultural sense, a volunteer is a plant that grows without the gardener’s intention. Most often volunteers bloom from seeds dropped organically or by animals that leave behind the remnants of a garden forage. They are either nuisances or surprising gifts, depending on your attitude. In a shmita year, we depend on such volunteers — we need the unexpected and unplanned to flourish in the spaces that we decide not to control or cultivate. 

Observing shmita in the 21st century can be a challenge. Most of us do not have fields that we let lie fallow, nor do we possess the power to eliminate major areas of burden that may have fallen upon our neighbors. Yet, there are opportunities to reflect on our spheres of influence, new ways to connect with those we may live in proximity to but not really know, and daily needs that, if met, can relieve momentary burdens that may allow someone a bit of respite during a period of real challenge. There are ample opportunities to approach the year from a place of inquiry and curiosity: How can I reconsider my actions and practices in order to engrain the reminder that there is a greater purpose to the world, especially if we look through a lens of Jewish values and spiritual potential?

The Torah promises us that even if we let go of our plans and expectations, release our desire to be in control, and create our experiences, we will have more than enough to sustain us, as counterintuitive as that may seem. In the last year, when so much changed and we could not gather and serve in traditional ways, Repair the World did not shy away from its mission and goals, but instead doubled down and reimagined what Jewish service could look like through our Serve the Moment initiative, Repair’s pandemic response initiative, that in turn opened Jaqob’s eyes to the ways oppression manifests in the community. 

Rethinking our programming allowed us space for new ideas and new ways of serving — including virtual and smaller group gatherings, such as the Cleveland Vaccine Appointment Network, powered by Cleveland Repair, where young adults ensured those without access to the internet or lacking technology skills could still secure COVID vaccine appointments. 

Repair has learned and grown as an organization in the last year, transitioning from an extraordinary moment to a powerful movement, culminating in a new Service Era in which service is a cornerstone of Jewish life at every age and every stage. 

This September, as the Jewish community enters the first month of the year 5782, Repair will provide you with opportunities to reflect on and deepen your connection with service and community. In the spirit of Repair’s upcoming Sukkot service campaign, you can start by downloading Shelter of Peace, a guide to showing up for our unhoused neighbors and taking responsibility for housing insecurity.

As an organization and individuals, we look forward to spending the coming year reflecting and innovating in the continued pursuit of new perspective and growth. And we encourage you to do the same — to observe shmita by letting go of a limited view of service and instead being open to the learning and growth that volunteers itself when you become present for others. Meet unexpected opportunities and new connections with curiosity. Consider how both your actions and insights may take root and become generative and fruitful well beyond this year. How will you move into this year with open eyes, and how will you steward and cultivate what you learn in the years to follow? 

The shmita year imagines a recalibration and reset necessary for the land, for ourselves, and for our communities to sustain themselves for the long haul. We invite you to serve with us this year and embody the Jewish value of action and learning, so that together we may repair the world incrementally, in ways that can be sustained over time.

*Xe/xem/xyr is a set of gender-neutral pronouns.

 

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Giving Jewishly?

“Believe it or not,” my friend said, “2020 was our organization’s greatest year for giving in our entire history.” As the Executive Director of Repair the World NYC,  I spend a lot of time talking about fundraising. This was the fourth time in a week that I had heard some variation of this sentence. Across the country, donors have stepped up again and again since the start of the pandemic. In this time of immeasurable loss, this time in which the needs have been so great from every single angle, people have felt more compelled to give than ever before. 

When I began the Hadar Jewish Wisdom Fellowship’s Executive Cohort on Power and Money this summer, these realities were top of mind for me. What exactly is behind this momentum, this commitment, this communal response that we are seeing right now? How are people choosing where they give, why, and how much? And, perhaps the biggest question, when are they choosing to give, and when will they choose to stop?

In Deuteronomy 15:4, we read that if there is a “needy person” among us we are to “open [our] hand and lend [that which is] sufficient for whatever they need.” On first reading, this seems right. We should respond when people need help, and we should give differently according to the needs of the person in front of us.  Equity and equality are not the same.  To end food  insecurity – which is defined as lacking access to enough healthy and culturally appropriate food – it is not enough to simply give someone food; we must ensure that it is food that will sustain them and that they are able to eat. Not easy, but a simple enough concept.

During our cohort time, though, we were presented with texts that complicate that concept, and wrestled with the much larger questions: when has one given enough, and who gets to decide that?  In Bavli Ketubot 67b, the rabbis argue about whether it is sufficient to simply support someone enough that they can survive, whether they must be supported enough that they live as they were used to, or whether they must support someone enough to make them wealthy. We discussed this for some time, and many are of the belief that it is never one’s responsibility to give so much that a person in need has “even a horse upon which to ride and a servant to run in front of them.”  We went on to read about the ills that befall someone who asks for what can be considered excessive: wine, fatty meat, etc., which might lead one to believe that this assessment is correct.

However, the text that resonated most for me was this: 

Rabbi Ḥanina knew a certain pauper and was accustomed to send to him four dinars on every Shabbat eve. One day he sent it in the hand of his wife. She came back home and said to him: The man does not need charity…. Rabbi Ḥanina said: This is what Rabbi Elazar said: Come and let us appreciate the swindlers because were it not for them, we would be sinning every day in failing to properly support the truly poor (Bavli Ketubot 67b)

A few days ago my five year old daughter and I walked past someone asking for money on the street. I gave my daughter money to share with them. I heard another parent nearby tell their child that they would not give them money because “they’ll just use it on booze.” In our family we give whenever we have the chance, no matter what we think the person in front of us might do with the money. My husband and I believe that it’s not up to us to decide what is most important in someone’s time of greatest need, so we are raising our children to give people the dignity of that choice. It is true that this means sometimes a person chooses alcohol over food, cigarettes over water, drugs over a bed. For many, those are examples of excess one may not want to support with their money. For us, this goes back to the Deuteronomy text I began with. Who gets to decide what their needs are, and what is sufficient to fulfill those needs? There is power in choices about how we give our money, and these texts offer some Jewish wisdom on how you might choose to use that power.

While we are unlikely to be giving such that we help people have horses and servants, in the United States today we make choices about how to give all the time. As I am writing this, my family is deciding how to give to people impacted by extreme loss in Haiti and Afghanistan this summer of 2021. There has been a lot written about how to choose where to give in times of crisis over the years: should we give to large organizations who we know pay their executive staff a lot of money, but are well connected on the ground? Should we give to small organizations, even without clarity that the money will even get into the places experiencing the deepest need? If we only have so many dollars, is it best to choose one issue or split the money between them? 

As we move into the fall of 2021 and continue living amidst crisis, I am eager to see how people’s giving may change or grow. Perhaps you, reader, have been one of those people who gave more than usual this last year. How did you choose to give? When will you know that it’s been enough? How might you use these texts from Deuteronomy and the Bavli Ketubot to guide you? 

Rachel Figurasmith (she/her) is the Executive Director of Repair the World NYC. 

A Spaced Out Seder

By Rabbi Jessy Dressin

This year is my youngest nephew’s first seder. The first grandchild for my parents. The first of the next generation of my family. I pictured the Matzah Ballin’ bib on top of the “I found the afikomen” onesie. And then, it became clear, seder would be different this year. I began to think about how I would still host my family for seder. What would I need to create in order for my family, spanning ages 6 months to 75 years and three thousands miles, to come together virtually?

And then, the texts started to come in. From friends. From neighbors. “What are we gonna do for seder?” and “Are you creating something?” I hadn’t thought about the google doc I was working on for my family seder becoming the document that hundreds of others could use, but I soon realized the document could be a tool for others to meaningful engage with family and friends this Passover, at a time when we need it the most. This season is already difficult enough and I hated the thought that people would give up on the idea of hosting a seder virtually because they were uncertain of how to do so.

I began to adjust the google doc from a resource for my family to a more general resource with guiding tips and helpful advice. I considered the platform and I realized a long seder may not keep people engaged. I realized there was an opportunity for sharing videos and other content in an attempt to create something sensory and engaging. 

With humility, I added some loose instructions. (1) How to make sure everyone would have what they need to participate. (2) Designating someone to lead the seder, who I assume may be different than the person who typically leads the family seder – because technology – a true moment of passing the generational torch. (3) Things to think about in advance and the encouragement that trying to make seder happen this year is an act of resistance to the limitations and barriers the current circumstances place us in.

Circumstances may not be ideal. They may not result in a refined or polished celebration. We may find ourselves feeling limited and uncertain as to how we engage. Yet, the Passover story is about finding our own unique placement in a collective narrative. It is about seeing where we are at each year and how we relate to the timeless themes we are asked to consider at our tables. And, through my work with Repair the World, it is an invitation to think about the various ways that others may be experiencing these narrow and restrictive times. I am so glad to have special Passover resources from Repair to include at my seder table this year. 

Passover is the quintessential ritual that leverages memory as a motivator to act. An invitation to consider the ways that oppressive systems still inhibit people today from living to their fullest potential; to see ourselves as having a role to play in a liberation story that has not fully yet been realized because not all people are free.


Rabbi Jessy Dressin is dedicated to building Jewish connections and helping others find their connection. She worked for the JCCs of Greater Baltimore as a rabbi and director of Jewish life from 2012 until 2019. She now serves as the executive director for the Baltimore chapter of Repair the World. In 2016, Rabbi Jessy was named as one of The Forward’s Most Inspiring Rabbis.

Value of Community During this Global Health Crisis

Dear Repair the World Community,

Never in my lifetime has the imperative to love the stranger felt so alive. As we adopt new practices of social isolation to protect ourselves and our greater community, we are practicing the essence of what it means to care for our neighbors. 

As a community, we are grappling with the question, “what can we do to support those around us?” We know that vulnerable members of our community and our neighbors require extra support and thoughtfulness during times of distress. Repair the World has put our in-person service and learning opportunities on hold, and we are shifting our focus to consider how we can mobilize Jews and our neighbors to take action to repair the world under our new circumstances.

We challenge you to consider how you can care for and love the stranger during these times of heightened fear and uncertainty.

While the situation is changing every day, here are three opportunities we see in this moment to make a difference.

1. Continue to Support Our Amazing Local Service Partners

We have been in touch with our 65+ service partners across nine communities. While they are all in different stages of planning, one theme is that they anticipate a dramatic increase in clients due to the pandemic and as a result are in need of financial support. Now is a good time to increase your donations to your local soup kitchen or food pantry. Some of our dearest partners in this work, who we know could use your support during this difficult moment are Southwest Ecumenical Emergency Assistance Center (Atlanta), Baltimore Hunger Project (Baltimore), St. John’s Bread and Life (Brooklyn), The Night Ministry (Chicago), Gleaners Community Food Bank (Detroit), Food Bank for New York City (Harlem), Lotus House (Miami), Broad Street Ministry (Philadelphia), and East End Cooperative Ministry (Pittsburgh). 

2. Volunteer Online

With increased time at home, consider spending some of your time volunteering online. Our partners at Points of Light compiled this resource with a number of options for virtual volunteering, Catchafire matches volunteers with online opportunities that tap into their professional skills, and Golden is building out opportunities for virtual volunteering. 

3. Support Your Neighbors

While being advised not to venture far out from our homes, now is the time to think about who in our immediate proximity is vulnerable. We love this template that you can use to reach out to your neighbors and this new initiative in New York City called Invisible Hands which connects people with opportunities to shop and perform other tasks for their neighbors. We hope to see many more of these initiatives being developed in the coming days.

There are many more questions for us to consider. Who is suffering from social isolation? What are the needs of the health care workers on the front line and how can we support them? With many people now unable to work, how will we support those in need given an extreme rise in demand for food and supplies? 

As an organization we are continuing to focus on mobilizing the Jewish community to care for those who are most vulnerable right now. Read and share our resource, developed in partnership with Amplifier, on caring for the sick during the COVID-19 crisis. We are thinking creatively about how we can accomplish this and we welcome your support and best thinking. As opportunities emerge, we will share some ways we can all serve and care for our community virtually alongside our partners. 

The work to heal during and after this global health crisis will be ongoing. We are grounding this work by listening carefully to community needs. Our hope is to keep you updated in the coming weeks on opportunities, big and small, for you to make a difference. 

Yours in partnership, 

Cindy Greenberg
President and CEO, Repair the World 

Takeaways from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice

A version of this article appeared in the Atlanta Jewish Times.

By Lily Brent, Director, Repair the World Atlanta

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama has a steel pillar for each county in the United States where a lynching took place. When I visited with my fellow Repair the World City Directors last month, I thought it would be easy to find the monument for Fulton County because I knew it would be crowded with the names of the 35 documented victims of racial terror lynchings in the community where I make my home. I scanned the oxidized columns one after another after another. There are more than 800. Many of them crowded with names like Lillie (mine) and Daniel (my father’s) and Adam (my brother’s) and Squire, Julia, Evan, Robert, George, Thomas, Lit, Cairo, and Lincoln. The Fulton County pillar was lost to me in a killing forest.

With the help of staff, I found our Fulton County history suspended from the ceiling, hanging heavy and ominous over my head.

The Memorial is at once a place of deep dignity and honor for Black Americans who were denied due process, terrorized, tortured, murdered, and who have gone largely unacknowledged for a hundred years or more. Or far less. It is also a place of shame. That shame is too complex to unpack fully here, but I will share a piece of mine with you in good faith.

As a Jew who worked with genocide survivors in Rwanda, I consider myself someone well-steeped in “man’s inhumanity to man.” Here in the United States, I have worked in prisons and public schools and I know we are far from freedom and justice for all.

I lived and worked in Rwanda during the final year of gacaca, the country’s truth and reconciliation process after a genocide in which over 800,000 human beings were murdered in 90 days. Looking out at the country’s stunning vistas of green hills as far as the eye can see, I marveled at how such a beautiful landscape could be so blood-soaked: that gentle ribbon of river was choked with bodies, red like a plague in April 1994. I questioned how neighbors could continue to live alongside each other when members of one family had macheted members of the other. That kind of tolerance seemed inconceivable.

What I failed to realize–and now I cannot believe the colossal nature of my ignorance and naivete, my blinding white privilege–is that we in the United States are living our own unresolved legacy of violence. Just as I walked through the Eastern Province of Rwanda and had someone point out the house of the man who killed his father, I walked through Selma with activist Joanne Bland, who pointed out the business establishment of the man thought to have murdered Reverend James Reeb. Here neighbors are also living alongside descendants of those who lynched their family members. Yet we’ve never sat together in the fields, community by community, and told our stories.

Many of us have made or will make pilgrimages to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)’s Legacy Museum and Memorial for Peace and Justice. Many of us will be moved by re-encountering our American history from a lens of racial terror, and facing the founding “myth of racial difference” that has justified everything from slavery, to convict leasing, to casting black children as “super-predators.” In Rwanda, moving forward after atrocities called for a reckoning with the crimes committed, not through retribution, but through truth-telling. This is the movement EJI is creating. As Jews, what is our place in this movement?

At Repair the World, our mission is to mobilize Jews and their communities to take action to pursue a just world. As volunteers, we’re often meeting and serving people with whom we don’t share lived experiences. For white, affluent volunteers, this might mean entering an unfamiliar neighborhood, one that doesn’t have a grocery store with fresh produce, or a subway station, and where 40% of residents don’t own cars. We might listen to people striving to break out of poverty and running up against barriers like a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour ($1,160 per month) in a city where the average two-bedroom apartment costs $1,000 per month. We might hear a new perspective in conversation with Black Atlantans. Without understanding our shared history, we are in danger of accepting the poverty and inequity we encounter while volunteering as incidental and accidental and not part of a larger system of inequality rooted in persistent and pernicious white supremacy.

Volunteering, when done right, allows us to stand shoulder to shoulder with our neighbors. It opens an opportunity to hear the urgent needs in our community, and to strive to meet them. There is something deeply satisfying about knowing that someone will not go hungry tonight because of us. Yet Jewish scholarship teaches us to question. And as we do the important work of meeting urgent needs, I believe we are also obligated to ask ourselves “why?” Why is this work of feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, tutoring children in inadequate schools still necessary in the wealthiest country in the world? Every individual has a story filled with choices, but as Bryan Stevenson of EJI, famously writes, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.” When we see patterns of disenfranchisement and disinvestment persist along racial lines, we have to ask ourselves why.

While Atlanta is a city with a proud legacy of Black leadership and innovation across fields, the patterns of inequity are also clear. Atlanta is tied for the city with the greatest income inequality in the nation and also “has the widest racial achievement gap of any urban school district except Washington, D.C”.  Georgia has the most people under correctional control (prison, jail, probation and parole) of any state in the U.S. and a vastly disproportionate number of people incarcerated in our state are African American. EJI is calling us to the realization that racial disparities in health, wealth, education, and incarceration stem from our unresolved history of slavery, racial terror, and systematic discrimination.

Our heroes of the Civil Rights movement made monumental progress toward the realization of all America promises. And yet the struggle is not over. In my job as Director of Repair the World Atlanta, people often share their desire to make our community more just, but lament, “What can I do?” Racism and inequity are entrenched problems on scale where it can feel hard to make an impact. At Repair, we take small and consistent steps to care for each other. We also urge you to ask the big questions.

Lessons From Our Ancestors: A Refugee Story (Mordy Walfish)

The stories of people coming into our country today, many of whom are fleeing harsh conditions at home, are familiar to Jewish Americans. We can take lessons from remembering the words from Exodus 23: “Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

I’m the grandkid of four refugees. My dad’s parents fled Eastern Europe between the two World Wars – one settled in Toronto and the other in Detroit. My mother’s parents are Holocaust survivors. I’ve always connected most to my grandmother’s refugee story. She grew up in Poland and spent her teenage years in ghettos and camps, finally being liberated from Bergen-Belsen in 1945 at the age of 18.

Though Poland was her home, she, her sister, and her mom (the only survivors in their large extended family) had no desire to return. They first smuggled their way into Belgium, where they lived for a couple of years, until making her way to Paris, which was her dream. There she lived a free and beautiful life – soaking up the culture, studying to be a Yiddish teacher and also meeting my grandfather.

Paris was always a dream for my grandmother and the freedom and depth of life she lived there in so many ways represented the counter to the enslavement she experienced during the Holocaust. My grandparents wanted to settle there, but France was not granting citizenship to Jewish refugees. They were disappointed that they couldn’t rebuild their lives in France, but grateful that they could settle permanently in Canada.

 

From an early age I internalized that you can’t take home, safety, and belonging for granted. And that there is so much luck of the draw between those who have access to a secure home and those who do not. Home isn’t permanent and can be really precarious; and that community sustains you, especially at times when you are denied a physical place to call home.

Refugee issues hit so close to home, in a deep and visceral way. I’d like to think that I would care about refugee issues simply as a human, but of course my own family’s history make this one feel so alive for me.

Welcoming refugees to me feels so central to Repair’s mission in so many ways. Deep down when I think about our mission, it’s about fostering a sense of connectedness between all humans – that our fates are bound up with one another. There are times in our individual lives – and in the life of the Jewish community – when we are vulnerable and need others to welcome us, to share their resources with us, to build us up and let us live our fullest lives. And there are times when we are privileged to have access to resources and we have a deep obligation to share these resources – of time, of home, of space, of money – with others. I don’t really see this as a choice. Community is what sustains us, and sharing what we have is one of the only ways to undercut the randomness of life.

 

(Photos courtesy of Mordy Walfish. Top: Mordy’s grandmother, mother, and uncle. Middle: Mordy’s grandparents.)

Why I Spent Yom Kippur Serving Up Pork Chops in Brooklyn

The original text of this article appeared today in The Forward. Mordy Walfish is Vice President for Programs at Repair the World. 

I spent Yom Kippur this year dipping pork chops in olive oil, preparing lunch for the clients of St. John’s Bread and Life, an amazing anti-poverty organization in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

It marked a significant transformation from my upbringing: growing up in one of the few religious households in a Conservative synagogue in Hamilton, Ontario, my family held a certain disdain for “three-times-a-year Jews” – people who only showed up at synagogue on the High Holidays. My family, along with a few dozen other devoted people, would come to synagogue week-in-week-out, sometimes struggling to get a minyan. Each year as the fall rolled around, I would watch in amazement as the synagogue maintenance staff opened up the social hall of Beth Jacob Synagogue to provide overflow capacity to the 600 people who appeared on Yom Kippur. “Where were these people all year?” I wondered. “And why were they coming out of the woodwork today?”

As my relationship to Judaism changed and evolved over the years, I began to find more meaning outside the walls of the synagogue, in particular through the pursuit of social justice. And in recent years I have found myself as one of those three-times-a-year Jews. As I sat in synagogue two Yom Kippurs ago, I wondered what I was doing there. Shouldn’t I be spending this punctuating moment in a way that is more consistent with who I am in the world?

Last year I decided to grab a few friends to spend the day volunteering with me at St. John’s Bread and Life. It was a different kind of Yom Kippur service. And as we did last year, this year we prepared and served breakfast and lunch to hundreds of clients and spent a good deal of time just chatting – with the volunteers, staff and clients of SJBL. The experience felt meaningful, and a good use of our time and Yom Kippur day. But spending my day with real people, enduring poverty and other forms of oppression, served as an important reminder to me: The poor and hungry of this city do not exist for me to have a meaningful Jewish experience. The wealth and poverty gaps in this country are a stain on all of us – and a call to action that we cannot in good conscience ignore.

And with the words of Isaiah from the Yom Kippur haftorah ringing in my ear (“Is this not the fast I will choose….to share your bread with the hungry… “), I reflected on my own life and service over the past year. I am no hero for spending my Yom Kippur volunteering, and I know enough to know that this experience has little effect unless I keep coming back.

Though I spend my days working behind the scenes to foster a deep culture of meaningful service in the Jewish community with Repair the World, in many ways I am a “three times a year” volunteer; over the past year I’ve volunteered fewer than a dozen times. Each time I have volunteered at SJBL, I have been humbled by the daily “minyan”-goers – the staff and volunteers who are there day-in-day-out, no matter the weather, no matter the holiday. And I wonder why I haven’t done better. And how I can do better. How much more useful I will be when I understand the kitchen at SJBL as well as I understand my own. This Yom Kippur service is only useful if it’s a wake-up call, to do better, to be better.

Most of the clients at SJBL are people of color, as are most of the staff and volunteers. The boundaries between them are often porous – many of the staff and volunteers are former clients. It’s hard to volunteer and not ask how and why our broken food systems disproportionately affect people of color (for example, of the 50 million food insecure people in the US, 10.6% are white). I’ve been thinking a lot about service in the context of racial justice and the work that I do with Repair the World. I am painfully aware that service is not going to solve racism. Structural racism is deeply embedded into every system that makes this country function. But I do think that service has a role to play.

Though so many of us good-intentioned white folk consume and post all the right media, sign all the right petitions, and show up at all the right rallies – trying not to take up too much space – all too often we don’t actually have real relationships with those who experience the consequences of interpersonal and structural racism on a daily basis. Some of us have never had a conversation with someone who fears for their life if they run a red light and is pulled over by the cops; some of us have never talked about the Mets with someone whose unarmed father was shot by the police. We’ve never broken bread with someone whose mere presence – by virtue of the color of their skin – seems to evoke the fear of so many others.

Service across communities can open this door, even as it also, and importantly, reinforces the experiential gap that whites and people of color face daily in this country. It forces us to listen to each other’s stories, no matter how painful, no matter how much we may want to repress them.

And while the fight for dismantling racism is happening – and needs to happen – at every level – people are hungry and we need to work tirelessly to get them the food they need to not only survive but also thrive.

As Yom Kippur ends and the gates of heaven close, and with the pork marinade still stuck to my shoes, I pledge to do better in the year ahead.

 

Choosing Service Every Day

Director of Repair the World: Pittsburgh, Zack Block, talks about making a commitment to service single every day. This story was originally published in The Jewish Chronicle.

Shortly after joining the Repair the World team as its Pittsburgh director, I was asked by our national staff about our volunteering plans for MLK Day. After all, MLK Day is a national service day and Repair the World plays a key role in mobilizing Jews around the country to serve on this day.

I was intrigued to discover that in my sister Repair cities (New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Baltimore), thousands of volunteers come out to serve on MLK Day, while in Pittsburgh organizations like the Kelly Strayhorne Theater, the Union Project, and the East End Cooperative Ministry have made it into a day of meaningful community dialogue and celebration of Dr. King’s legacy. I so admire the community leaders who have built this culture of dialogue in Pittsburgh. My vision is to build on this work and to use these conversations as the starting point for taking action and improving local communities through service.
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